The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair
I WAS TEN WHEN GAYSIE CUTTER tried to kill me. It was just like her too—always leaving a bad first impression. Her idea of a welcome wagon came in the middle of July, during my first Iowa heat wave, which was as hot as you know what. My little sister, Bitty, and I were minding our own beeswax, walking past one corn row after another to get a look at our new school and the playground’s famed red rocket slide. I had my fingers crossed that it was totally wicked.
We stayed off the main road, walking along the bank of the Crow River, where it was cooler and somehow felt safer. I swear, it was so flat here that with one little tilt, we could fall right off the world.
“Hurry up, Bitty baby.”
I could hear her behind me, dragging an old stick in the dirt, which was comforting, in a Hansel and Gretel kind of way—not that it was even possible to get lost here. We had a bet that by the time we got to the rocket slide, we’d still be able to see Nana on the front porch, wagging her finger at us.
Sludging forward, past identical green stalks, I decided to hate corn.
“Gwyn,” Bitty moaned.
“Come on, honey,” I called over my shoulder, using the word “honey” like any sweet, mothering sister would.
I peeked back to see Bitty’s pitiful red face dripping sweat down the sides of her baby-round cheeks. I collapsed on the one rock that had shade, motioning for Bitty to sit next to me. In New York, the only river we had lived near was the Hudson, where these people called the Mafia put their rivals’ dead bodies. I had a sudden and lonely affection for it.
Bitty collapsed next to me. “I want to go home. It’s too hot here.”
“It was hot in New York, too.”
“I don’t want to live here.”
“We have to.”
“Because of Vienna?”
Everything, really, was because of Vienna.
I splashed water on Bitty’s face, jumped up, and said, “Come on, we’re almost to the slide!”
Our objective cheered us enough to wade through yet another giant cornfield, to Lanark Lane, where the glorious rocket slide came into view. It was like a real rocket: solid, enormous, painted red with white wings, and a long slide coming down to earth. The top was a brilliant blue tip headed straight for the sky.
I didn’t even have time to say, Race ya! before we were halfway there.
We would have made it too, if it weren’t for the boy. His presence stopped us short.
He was facing away from us, awkwardly cutting a large,
green bush into nothing but sticks, using the largest pair of scissors I’d ever seen. Dressed in frayed, cutoff jean shorts and a black T-shirt, he balanced barefoot on a skateboard.
The backdrop to this butchery was an enormously grand farmhouse the color of a clementine. Crudely nailed to a porch slat was a warped piece of driftwood with CUTTER carved into it.
The boy made a large, impatient whacking gesture at the bush, chopping off the entire top.
“Ah heck,” he spit. “She’s not gonna like that.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bitty said solemnly. He turned quickly, surprised, but as soon as he saw us, his face became one wide, crooked grin. He tucked the scissors, which looked large enough to decapitate me in one quick whack, behind the bush. Cool as a cat, he flipped his skateboard up with a bare foot to walk toward us. The underside of his board was a cluster of black-and-white skulls.
“Pruning shears,” he said, following my gaze. “Had to hide ’em.” He lowered his voice and raised his eyebrows. “Don’t want those to get . . . into the wrong hands.” I couldn’t tell—was he teasing or trying to scare me?
Despite my questions, I let Bitty pull me down the street. An interrogation would have to wait—we had a rocket slide to climb.
But the boy wasn’t done with us.
I heard the skateboard coming from behind before it passed, headed toward a homemade plywood ramp sitting
in the middle of the road. He pushed off the ground with his bare foot. Crouching like a tiger on the approach, he attacked and flew. The wind carried him high into the air as he glided through space, his board flying with him, touching nothing but sky. He landed as neatly as he had begun, in the same crouched tiger position.
“Holy tamoly,” Bitty whispered.
I briefly considered marrying him.
“Have you ever crashed?” I eyed his bruised knees and slightly swollen cheek.
He shrugged, flicking long, dark hair out of his eyes. “I was born lucky, Gaysie always says.” He yawned, like it was nothing to be lucky.
“Gaysie?” It was a familiar name, one I’d heard my father use, but I couldn’t remember why.
“Yep. I’m cutting a wreath for the funeral.” He motioned back toward the clementine-orange house.
“Okay,” I said, confused. “Well, I’m Gwyn. . . .”
“I know,” he said, waving us off. “Everyone knows you were comin’.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jimmy. Want to see my tattoo?”
Bitty and I looked at each other. Iowa was supposed to be Little House on the Prairie and braids. There were not supposed to be tattoos in Iowa.
“Shoot,” he said. “I’m just messin’ with ya.”
I nodded slowly, sizing him up. “Want to race?” I asked.
“I can run a six-minute flat mile. I was the fastest girl in New York.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it,” I added, figuring “ain’t” was a good Iowa word.
From behind us, a door slammed, letting him off the hook.
“That’s Micah,” Jimmy said. “You could say he lost his best friend today—well, except for me.”
Jimmy skated toward the smaller boy sitting on the front steps. Bitty and I took a few steps forward.
At first glance, you could tell the farmhouse had once been impressive, with a large wraparound porch, storybook turns and curves, and a small tower I’d have liked to read a hundred books in. But the closer we got, the more foreboding it became.
The house was actually falling apart.
The rusted black mailbox was secured only with faded blue duct tape. The orange house paint was peeling, the front porch was bowed, and the gutters were broken or missing. Not to mention, distracting from any sort of charm were clashing fluorescent NO TRESPASSING and BEWARE OF DOG signs nailed to the massive maple trees out front. Who, I wondered, were they trying to keep out? Jimmy was the first human we’d seen in a mile.
“Rapunzel,” Bitty whispered, looking upward at the small tower.
The boy Micah kept his head down as we approached. He was real skinny and his white hair was almost completely
buzzed. His legs were pale, chicken-like, sticking out of bright pink shorts, and never before had I seen a boy wear sparkling silver, curly shoelaces. I instantly adored them.
“Hey, Micah,” Jimmy called, ollieing over a small troll statue. “Look who I found.”
Micah looked up, his teary eyes magnified behind thick brown eyeglasses. He stood and wiped his nose.
“Hi. You can come too. . . . She’s waiting.”
Jimmy followed Micah toward the backyard.
“Who’s waiting? Where are we going?” I called out.
“To bury José,” Jimmy said.
Far too curious to leave now, I pulled Bitty along. “Come on,” I whispered. “There might be snacks.”
Whoever lived in the clementine house was far more interested in flowers than paint and gutters. The backyard looked like a New York City art exhibit, with splashes of pink, purple, and yellow flowers everywhere. The sunflowers, not quite opened, nodded and beckoned us forward.
“Vienna would love these,” I murmured with a slight pang, stopping to inhale a black-eyed Susan. I was so engulfed that I barely noticed a loud honking noise off in the distance.
“Beware,” Micah said, looking around, “of the goose.”
“Actually,” Jimmy cackled, “Gaysie is who you need to watch out for.”
“But who is Gaysie?”
This, actually, was the question I would forever be asking.
Jimmy smiled wickedly over his shoulder, then motioned to a long, wooden box that sat against the house. “Gaysie’s coffin,” he said. “Commissioned last month, ’cause she can’t fit in a regular one.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Just in case. Things happen.”
Honk! went the goose.
Jimmy motioned me forward.
Far out in the fields was a man moving slowly on a blue tractor. I wiped the sweat from my forehead. My watch read 8:42 a.m.
“It’s so hot,” I breathed.
“Heck-of-a-hot-spell,” an enunciated voice said behind me. “Which is why morning burials are preferable to afternoon burials.”
I jumped as Bitty clung to my backside. A giant woman had materialized from nowhere. She was enormously tall, as if she had dinosaur bones. Her muscles were large on top but sagged on the bottom, like there was too much person to fill. Following close behind her was a beautiful white goose. I stepped forward to pet it, but the goose let out a terrifying Honk!
“Stay!” the giant woman said, giving me a fierce look. Then she turned to the goose, revealing an ugly, purple scar from her hairline to her chin. “Shoo!” The goose obeyed, but not before aggressively flapping its large white wings at me.
“Tula, the Fighting Goose is all talk and no action today,” the giant mocked.
She turned back toward me and raised her chin, sizing
me up. I recoiled. Hard, wrinkled lines ran down her face like dried-out riverbeds. Her hair was pulled back in a coarse gray braid and in her arms she held a big black garbage bag.
I swallowed hard. Was José in there?
“It’s the people from New York,” Jimmy said.
“I can see that,” she said, nodding. “How marvelous to finally meet Guinevere St. Clair. You look like your father. I’m Gaysie Cutter.”
My instincts told me to run. My father had said people would know us. He and Vienna had grown up in Crow, after all, and everyone knew everyone, but I didn’t like how this Gaysie Cutter said my name, like she knew more about me than I did.
A large drop of sweat hung precariously from her upper lip, and I licked my own lips as it fell, hitting the bag with an audible smack.
Bitty decided to make her appearance by peeking out from behind me.
Gaysie startled and staggered sideways, the black garbage bag tilting toward me. I felt a great chill hit the center of my chest as a tiny sliver of black hair slipped out from under the plastic. Gaysie stared at Bitty, looking like she was seeing a ghost. “Well!” she whispered. “Aren’t you the spitting image!”
It was true. I knew from pictures that Bitty was our mother, Vienna, many, many years ago.
I impatiently took Bitty’s fingers out of her mouth, and she ducked behind me once more.
“Does she talk?” Gaysie said, delighted.
“Yes,” I said indignantly.
“Wonderful! And so our adventure begins. Now, without further dilatoriness . . . shovels!”
I hesitated, holding my sister back. There were clearly no snacks. We should have never deviated from our rocket slide plan!
But Micah and Jimmy followed Gaysie toward the cornfields next to the river.
Georgia Piehl, New York prosecuting attorney and my father’s dental patient, knew I wanted to be a lawyer more than anything. She had given me a gift when we left New York: The Law: A to Z. “Accessory” was letter A: Somebody who aids somebody else to commit a crime or avoid arrest but does not participate in the crime itself.
This woman was holding a dead body and walking off into a cornfield—and I was letting her. Could it be . . . a crime? The thought was both terrible and thrilling. I was only ten and about to become an Accessory. Was it possible to be disbarred before I even got into law school?
Alas, curiosity has always been my weakness, and ten seconds later we, too, were marching in the funeral procession mourning José. We stopped abruptly while Gaysie adjusted the weight in her arms.
“This is a solemn occasion for the Cutter family and Jimmy Quintel, who, for all intents and purposes, is a Cutter,” she breathed heavily. “An important member of the family has passed on through the great veil that separates us from the heavenly beings.” Micah kicked a rock. Gaysie
fixed her eyes fiercely on him. “We’ve got to channel the Lord, boy. We’ve got to talk with Him, let the spirit move you!” She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. I watched in fascination, having no experience with watching someone channel the Lord before.
Jimmy smirked, his eyes tightly shut except for a slit to watch me. I bowed my head and nudged Bitty to do the same. Slowly, and deliberately, Gaysie’s voice became a low-pitched force.
“Lord, death comes to us all. It comes to us all, and we thank Thee for the life Thou gives us either big or small.” Gaysie hefted the bag high in the air like an Amazon warrior.
“We offer Thy faithful servant unto Thee, commanding his spirit into Your keeping. We ask for Your great and magnanimous mercy as Thy servant did the best he could in the body he was given. And, Lord . . .” Her voice suddenly broke.
I peeked under my eyelids, grudgingly delighted by such a performance. Did she say “servant”? They were burying their servant in the backyard!
“Lord,” she cried, “José was well loved! Yes he was, hallelujah.”
Gaysie nodded, wiped her nose on her shoulder, and grunted like a pig. “Though hygiene and breath had much to be desired—Amen!” Opening her eyes, she looked around our small circle. “Final thoughts and tributes?”
“Dude,” Jimmy said. “Remember that time he ate that nasty baby diaper?”
“What?” I interrupted. “Baby diapers?”
“Speculation on Jimmy’s part,” Gaysie said.
My palms were now noticeably damp, my feet stuck like concrete to the ground. Questions peppered my brain. Baby diapers, a servant, a secretive backyard burial. They didn’t look like the kind of people who had servants. Why couldn’t José be buried in a normal cemetery? Then again, I was new to town. Maybe this was an Iowa thing.
“Heavy,” Gaysie groaned, lowering the bag. It thudded, dead weight on the ground. She clapped her large hands together and looked at us expectantly. “Six feet is ideal.”
With only two shovels, we took turns and were immediately drenched with perspiration.
“How far is six feet?” I panted.
“About as tall as I am.” My eyes went from Gaysie’s knees to her bulging waistline to her broad shoulders, and finally up to her face. We’d be digging until next week. As if she could read my mind, she responded saltily by saying, “But three will suffice.”
“Um,” I said. “How did José die?”
“In his sleep,” Gaysie said. “It was his time. He was suffering.” Somewhat mollified, I dug my shovel into the hole, the long handle awkward in my skinny arms.
“Then again, he could’ve been poisoned,” Gaysie said. “He was always eating something out of the trash.”
“That diaper . . . ,” Jimmy began.
“Enough,” Gaysie said. She tapped the side of her head, close to her long scar. “José wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he was a faithful companion to this family.” She took the shovel from Micah and launched a huge chunk of
earth over her shoulder with such force that I startled and fell over.
“How is your mother, Ms. Guinevere St. Clair?”
“Fine,” I said, struggling to get up.
“I’m going to bring her some flowers. She always loved my flowers.”
“Yes,” I said, frowning at my dirt-covered clothes. Nana was going to have a hissy fit. “Vienna loves flowers, but I’m sure she’s . . . different than when you knew her.”
“Well, we’re all different than we were. Thank goodness for that.”
Not, I thought, in Vienna’s case.
Micah mumbled something, his face a mess of dirt rivulets that kept sliding his glasses down his nose while his dirty fingers kept pushing them back up.
“Enunciate so I can hear you,” Gaysie said.
“I need a drink.”
Micah and Jimmy walked back toward the house, leaving Bitty and me with the giant woman and a corpse.
“Micah’s having a hard time,” Gaysie said. “Very much like his father, sensitive, weak. I’m afraid for him. This world has a way of crushing the sweet and the soft.” I glanced out into the fields at the man on the blue tractor.
“No, that’s Wilbur, the old boy. You’ll meet him and his mistress soon enough.” A mistress in Iowa!
“Micah’s father is dead. Cremated, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Gaysie surveyed the field. “He’s buried here too. But cremation is expensive, and as much as I loved
José . . . well, some men you have more of an affection for.”
Bitty, who was too small to dig, took a tentative step toward a tree swing, looking at me for permission.
“I can see you take care of her,” Gaysie said, heaving another large shovel of dirt over her shoulder. “You both lost your mother at too young an age.”
“No,” I corrected. “We didn’t lose her.”
“There’s more than one way to lose somebody.”
Gaysie sniffed, her T-shirt drenched with perspiration and clinging to her lumpy body. “That’s probably deep enough. Why don’t you get right in there and see?”
I pretended I hadn’t heard, craning my neck for the wretched boys who had left me to bury their own servant. When there was no sign of them, my mood blackened.
“I’m too big,” Gaysie added.
I glanced at Bitty, swinging happily. Next door was a small white house I hadn’t noticed until now. The goose sat on the back porch, occasionally honking. A curtain fluttered before hanging still. A witness.
“Well . . . I guess.”
I dropped my shovel in the hole and jumped down after it. It was cooler in the ground, an almost welcome relief from the humidity.
The hole wasn’t six feet, but it was deeper than I expected, and when I put my hands on the ledge, the earth crumbled down my arms and onto my shoes. Immediately, a helpless feeling rose inside my chest, then all the way up to my hairline.
“Bitty?” I yelled.
“Are you frightened?” Gaysie asked. She sounded surprised. I tried to breathe in and out, to not lose control of my imagination as my father frequently suggested I did. I tried to hear him talking to me. Use your brain and control your emotions, Guinevere.
I jumped up to climb out, but my attempt only brought more dirt down. I could see nothing except for Gaysie’s looming face. Her teeth suddenly looked like yellowed fangs. My hands began to shake. I opened my mouth but no words came out. My hands were clammy, almost numb.
And then Gaysie began to unwrap the bag. Did she mean . . . to put it in the grave with me? I’d be buried alive!
I pressed my eyes tight, my breathing becoming shorter. Guinevere. Act! I forced my face upward. Gaysie had stopped unwrapping and was looking down at me, a curious look on her face, almost as if she was amused by my last moments of life.
I could see the body poking out of the bag.
Black hair. Thick, unruly, snarled black hair. Matted and wet. The smell of fresh death. My voice came. I screamed, while Gaysie hovered above, ready to bury me alive and top me off with a dead servant. My screams gave me the adrenaline to lunge upward, clawing savagely with my fingernails as the cold dirt poured down my neck and under my clothes. I hung on the ledge as Gaysie got down on her hands and knees.
“Help,” I whispered.
“Guinevere,” she said. “You don’t need my help.”
I fell back in the grave.
Dirt fell on my cheeks and microscopic dust entered my eyes and nose, making me cough. The moments of my life flashed before me: Vienna teaching me how to play patty-cake, my father’s smile, and—Bitty! I had to save my Bitty before Gaysie turned on her next.
With an unknown strength, I jumped and grabbed the grass above me. Using my feet and knees, I pulled myself up and away from the devil woman. If she had tried to touch me, I would have bitten her hand off. And blessed Bitty—she was running toward me, Micah and Jimmy close behind.
“What’s the matter?” Micah asked, out of breath.
“Worthless!” I screamed.
They looked at one another, baffled by my outburst.
And then Gaysie did the oddest thing: She clapped, delighted.
Grabbing Bitty’s hand, we ran the entire mile back home on the dirt road of Lanark Lane, not stopping until we were panting and crying on Nana’s front yard behind the prim white picket fence.
“We will never ever go back there, Bitty . . . never!”
“We didn’t see my school, or the rocket slide,” she wailed.
“Bitty, hush now. I’ll take you tomorrow.”
We lay back, looking up at the light blue Iowa sky. “We’ll never go back” was the phrase I uttered over and over: We’ll never go back.
That wicked Gaysie Cutter was right about one thing.
I didn’t need her help, nor would I ever ask for it, not as long as I lived and breathed. We lay on the grass until Nana called us in for lunch. By that time my mood had decidedly changed for the better for two reasons:
One, I had always longed for an archenemy, and two, I was certain I’d just beaten my New York six-minute-flat mile record.